12 Tips to Ace Your College Application Essays
By Carol Barash
You’ve heard it over and over – from college admissions, your English teacher and guidance counselor, not to mention how many times your parents tell you, “Your application essays are REALLY important; you need to finish them NOW!”
The truth is if you could finish them, you would. But really, “What matters to you and why?” It’s one thing to talk about the meaning of life with your friends late at night, but to total strangers and in writing? It’s exhausting and debilitating and sometimes you want to throw in the towel.
If you’re applying Early Anything, November 1st or 15th is show time. And even December 31st is getting closer by the day. To help you crank those essays out and send them in with confidence, here are 12 Tips you can use to amp up any essay that’s causing you stress (and even the ones that aren’t):
Before you start writing, take a few deep breaths, let go of your doubts and distractions – just put all of that to the side – and write with your mind open to whatever you discover.
2. Create a bridge.
Make your dreams palpable based on what you have already done. That means in each essay, for each college, use your past experience to show readers who you will be as a member of that college community.
3. Turn scripts into stories.
Anyone can say, “The environment matters to me,” or even, “I joined the Environmental Club with my best friend and stayed after she left.” Replace those generic scripts with specific details that only you can tell. For instance, “I worked with 15 local eighth graders. We planned and planted a garden in Orange where an old hat factory was torn down. Three years later it’s an overgrown jungle of purple, yellow and green.”
4. Choose a moment.
Most students try to pack everything into each essay. Instead, make a list of your defining moments – the moments when you learned, grew, changed or made a difference. Use each essay to show your reader one moment of change and transformation.
5. Focus in.
Pay close attention to the activities, achievements, people and work that have influenced you. What changed? Who did what? Who said what to whom? Spend time remembering the details, and write them all down.
6. Map it!
What do you want the reader to learn about you in each essay? Which experiences reveal the unique qualities you bring to a college community? Use a story to organize your essay, so the reader gets it without you having to say, “That was the day I learned…” or some other cliché.
7. Perform out loud.
Whenever you are stuck in your own mind, ideas running amok and very little on paper, tell your story to another person and record it. Even talking aloud into your phone or computer helps to get the juices flowing and activates your voice.
8. Write it out.
Now take your recording and write it out word for word; that’s your first draft. If telling the story out loud is too weird for you, get out a pen and paper and write your story out by hand as if you are talking to another person, someone you can really trust.
9. Magnet + Flash
The first sentence needs to draw the reader in – so no preambles or explanations; get right into the story. And the last sentence is the last thing they will remember, so you want to end with something that sticks.
10. Explore perspectives.
Now to the guts of your essay. Everyone says, “The essay needs to be about you.” And it’s true. But how can you show that you understand and appreciate others’ points of view? In that moment where you changed, who else was there? What did they experience? What can another perspective bring to your story?
11. Raise the stakes.
Does your essay feel like it just doesn’t matter enough? Take some time to imagine your experience on a bigger stage – what if everyone did what you did? What if no one did? Why is this important to you? What can you do to show the bigger picture?
12. Own the space.
Imagine you have gotten in to the college of your dreams, and write from that place. Go there – what will you study? What kind of roommate will you be? What clubs will you join or start from scratch? You deserve it; write each word with that knowledge in your heart. Proofread it carefully, take a deep breath, and then press send.
There are many great colleges. You will thrive and make a difference at one of them. And then you will tell those stories to get into your first fabulous job. Good luck!
Carol Barash, PhD is the founder and CEO of Story To College, a NYC-based company that teaches high school and college students how to perform the stories of their own experience in applications, interviews, and all of life.
Read about the Top 3 College Application Essay Mistakes You Can't Afford to Make.